The first G.I. Joe live-action movie, The Rise of Cobra, made money and had its fans, but few of them came from a place of die-hard Joe loyalty, simply because there were so many changes from the core elements we knew and loved. From big miscalculations like focusing on minor characters like Ripcord, to secondary issues like giving the Baroness slick shades instead of her fetishistic librarian glasses, it was an interpretation that didn’t appear to come from any place of truly felt fandom.
That, and it didn’t even give us the Cobra Commander and Destro we wanted until the very end. And if you’re going to hire Channing Tatum and you want male audiences to like him, you have to let him be funny, rather than have him play straight man to the annoying Gungan-American that Marlon Wayans most often appears to be impersonating.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation comes straight from the Attack of the Clones playbook when it comes to marketing: yeah, we know you didn’t care for the first one, but this has more of the stuff you know! Look, familiar characters and vehicles! Check it out – no more Jar Jar! And we got the Rock!
The good news is that they’re not kidding – Retaliation, unlike ROC, is recognizably a G.I. Joe movie. It may not have the sophistication of some of the comics, but it definitely has the spirit of the cartoons in places, without needing to resort to kung-fu grip jokes or references to “knowing is half the battle.” Sure, we can nitpick things like Joe Colton not having a beard, or Roadblock not talking in rhyme, but the spirit of the property many of us loved in one form or another is there.
Rather than write a more structured review, it seemed like a list might be the best way to address the concerns many fans have. To be clear: the good far outweighs the bad, but there are still things that could use a little clean-up, and I’m not even talking about the unnecessary 3D conversion. Here, then, are the five things it really gets right, followed by the five lesser areas in which the sequel falters a bit.
1. The Joes (and Cobra) Are American
Probably the biggest point of contention fans and pundits had with the first movie is that it dropped the “Real American Hero” tagline, except as a sarcastic comment from the Baroness. The thinking was that international audiences weren’t warm to the idea of America saving the world, and as such, Breaker and Heavy Duty were very specifically depicted as non-Americans. Their headquarters was underground in Egypt, and G.I. Joe was now an acronym meaning Global Initiative Joint Operation something-or-other.
The new movie doesn’t make a big deal about it, but it quietly walks back most of that nonsense. Rather than a global team commanded by General Hawk, the Joes we see here are American soldiers who take their orders from the president. Oh, and the team is now called G.I. Joe because it’s named after General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis). Meanwhile, Cobra is a division of the U.S. military created by President Zartan after he double-crosses the good guys.
You’d think people might get suspicious that this supposed new U.S. military division doesn’t have any U.S. flags or logos on their equipment, but rather a giant red snake head instead. We can only assume mass hypnosis is involved.
2. Codenames, Not Real Names
Consider this: at the end of the first film, Cobra had not yet fully formed. “The Doctor” had renamed himself “Commander,” and unveiled the logo on his submarine, but that’s as far as it got. And yet in the new film, which begins with him in captivity, he is referred to only as Cobra Commander from the getgo (even before President Zartan announces the creation of Cobra). Not “Rex Lewis,” but Cobra Commander.
Illogical? In a real world, yes. In a world where the primary goal is for characters to have the same names as the toys we’re familiar with…absolutely not. And remember those previous movie toys, where they felt obliged to label them Conrad “Duke” Hauser and Wallace “Ripcord” Weems? The Duke movie toy still gets that treatment – so as not to confuse kids, maybe? – but everyone else is just Roadblock, Lady Jaye, Jinx, etc. Even the president (Jonathan Pryce) whose face Zartan sports is known only as “President.” He must have been an easy choice on the ballot with a name like that.
3. Vehicles Based on Existing Toys
They may take a few liberties with the designs and even switch allegiances, but there’s no need to invent underground drill pods or anything like that here when you have the HISS, the Rattler, the Sky Hawk, the Water Moccasin, the AWE Striker and whatever that thing is Roadblock drives.
For my tastes, some of the movie-based adaptations back into toys are less successful, with bright primary colors that don’t exactly look realistic. Here’s hoping that’s just early waves. And for the Cobra Pogo and Trubble Bubble to make appearances in part 3.
4. The Mountainside Monastery of Ninjas with Grappling Guns
Yep. There’s a monastery on the side of a really tall mountain, and in it live a bunch of ninjas who all have Batman’s arsenal at their disposal. Why? It doesn’t matter. Why did you toss M-80s at your original Joes in the backyard? Because you could.
5. Cobra Acts Like Cobra
Cobra Commander’s plan is as grandiose as it ought to be, with giant space-based weapons platforms that can annihilate whole cities at once. Compared to endless talk of nanomites, this is the kind of big idea that a cartoon villain should be having. Not to mention he has a proper upper echelon cabinet of insane whack-jobs, from the hammy Zartan (who boasts that waterboarding is mis-named because he never gets bored of it) to psychotic ninja Storm Shadow and explosion-happy Firefly (whose name is absurdly literalized in that he has an arsenal of exploding robot fireflies). After the way Stephen Sommers screwed the pooch on Dr. Mindbender – having Kevin J. O’Connor play him as just a regular-looking guy, with all his key traits going to Cobra Commander instead – it’s nice to be able to proclaim “Cobra!” again without embarrassment.
Still, not everything here is golden. I have a few misgivings here and there; things that can be improved upon if a third installment emerges…
1. The SNAFU that Is the RZA
In a woefully odd bit of casting, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA plays the Blind Master, to whom Snake Eyes and Jinx are answerable. Yes, we all know RZA loves martial arts movies, but that doesn’t mean you need to humor him in the casting process – his is a glaringly awful performance that not only stands out like a sore thumb, but induces the same level of pain as one too.
Enthusiastically yelling out exposition as clunkily as possible, the RZA is clearly having a blast, but he sounds more like a carney barker than a zen master, and the idea that Snake Eyes wouldn’t slice his vocal chords just to get him to shut up is, frankly, far-fetched. At least his toy looks cool.
2. Cobra Uniforms Suck
Say what you will about the Neo-Vipers who served James McCullen in the first film, but they had a cool (if non-canonical) appearance and a backstory involving snake venom that made the Cobra designation ultimately make sense. Look also at the classic toys – whether you prefer the original blue outfit with face bandanas or the Viper uniform with chrome mask, the enemy’s troopers had a look all their own.
What they didn’t have: basic army camo with iron-on logos, and headgear that looks purloined from the set of American Gladiators. Cobra Commander’s ninjas dress stylishly in red, and he himself has some pretty majestic leather attire, so did his fashion sense simply malfunction when it came to the infantry, or did the movie’s costume budget run out?
3.Women, Minorities Seem Interchangeable
In the first G.I. Joe movie, Duke’s best friend is Ripcord (Marlon Wayans). In this one, his best friend is Roadblock, and nobody even mentions Ripcord. Does Duke only have room in his life for one black best friend at a time? Did they know about each other, causing Roadblock to secretly strangle Ripcord with his own parachute so he could snag the coveted Duke BFF role? That’s for the fan-fiction writers to figure out.
Likewise, everybody makes a big deal about Lady Jaye being a girl with a gun, and a woman having to prove herself in a man’s military. Did all these good soldiers suddenly forget about Scarlett, who could kick most of their asses once upon a time (does she not count because she used a bow)? Or that leather-clad woman in glasses who caused such a problem last go-around?
4. No Destro (Mostly)
We spent the entire previous movie waiting for Destro to get his signature metal mask, something the movie’s prologue had promised. At the very end, he finally did, and we thought, aha, now he’s ready to be the fan-favorite character we know and love.
And then this movie does nothing with him. He’s mentioned, but more as an afterthought than anything. Maybe, since we’re talking about quotas, Cobra Commander’s new choice of helmet meant there was only room for one character with a shiny metal face.
It’s possible ol’ chrome-dome could still resurface in a future sequel, but assuming that it’s a CGI cost issue to save the money it would take to animate his noggin, the road ahead doesn’t look good onscreen for our eminent enemy weapons supplier.
5. Real World Politics, G.I. Joe Don’t Mix
We should never lose sight of the primary appeal of G.I. Joe toys – allowing kids to play war in a safe, simplified way, with clear good guys and bad guys. Sometimes kids will root for the bad guys and have them win, but rarely if ever will they play-act the geopolitical debate and have Hawk and Destro try to hash things out in fiery speeches to the U.N., for example. It’s like how, in Olympus Has Fallen and similar films, it is never mentioned what political party the fictional president belongs to, because every viewer needs to be able to root for him.
Having James Carville appear to make a comedic speech on behalf of the fake president, however, drops a big hint – one that may unnecessarily polarize viewers. And then having Lady Jaye go undercover as a Fox News anchor, just so Zartan can make a “fair and balanced” joke…really? It gets a laugh, but do we need or want to be reminded that if G.I. Joe versus Cobra were a real battle, the American punditry would likely be divided in their sympathies depending upon who the president was?
Meanwhile, kids won’t get it, but the scene in which we see Israel attend a world summit as a declared global nuclear power may be the biggest bit of speculative fiction herein.
And now you know. G.I. Joe: Retaliation opens Thursday.